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The dominant mental image of deforestation is one of barren patches of land in the middle of the Amazon rainforest, the foliage dramatically segmented, juxtaposed against the striking emptiness of the deforested land. In this vision of deforestation, the aquatic mangrove forests which cover about 53,190 square miles of the surface of the planet offering valuable flood protection, jobs and carbon storage, are often forgotten.
Mangroves are a valuable natural resource for Colombia’s economy and a prominent symbol of national heritage for its people. The ongoing, large scale destruction of global mangrove forests threatens the erasure of such heritage, along with the communities, livelihoods and land the Mangroves have long defended.
The mangrove crisis is more evident in Bangladesh, where rising sea levels and infrastructure development are posing significant threats to The Sundarbans - the largest mangrove forest in the world.
Bangladesh’s high population density and inadequate infrastructure make it exceptionally vulnerable to climate change. Since Bangladesh is at an average elevation of just one metre above sea level, even the slightest increase would dramatically affect the area. Sea level rise, natural disasters and salinisation have already displaced large numbers of people, and it is only set to get worse - it’s been estimated that by 2050, one in every seven people in Bangladesh will be displaced by climate change and up to 18 million may have to move due to sea level rise alone.
A majority of this displacement is internal: most people flee vulnerable coastal areas and end up in urban slums, particularly in Dhaka, one of the world’s fastest-growing and most densely populated megacities. While the climate migrants see the city as a haven, the reality is far from it - the city is fraught with extreme poverty, human trafficking, public health hazards and its own vulnerability to floods.
Rafiqul Islam Montu is a journalist whose extensive work on Bangladesh’s coastline has coined a new term: Coastal Journalism. In summary of the current situation Rafiqul writes “There are 19 districts under the coast of Bangladesh. Out of these 19 districts, 16 districts are most at risk in terms of climate change and natural disasters. The population in the coastal areas of Bangladesh is about 50 million.” He adds that “The people of this region are mostly fishermen and farmers” living “Sundarbans-centric livelihoods”
While mangroves provide the first line of defence and are quite resistant to submersion in water, they can die when floods caused by cyclones occur too frequently or last too long. Rafiqul notes the visible effects of climate change on Bangladesh’s weather patterns, writing “When we look at the weather signals, we see unusual images. Cyclone signals have been issued frequently in recent years.”
The Bangladeshi government’s Forest Department does spend some money renewing mangrove forests and preserving old mangrove forests but according to Rafiqul, the government’s conservation efforts are “very limited”. And, he continues, “even then these works are not being done properly. As a result, the forests are not being protected. People in the affected areas are at risk due to lack of forest protection.”
A recent example of this is the Rampal coal power station, which has been approved by the government and is currently being constructed in close proximity to the Sundarbans. The harmful effects of the coal power plant will destroy the forest, pollute water sources and displace local communities, taking away their homes and livelihoods. Despite protests from local environmental groups, the government approved the project, providing a further threat to the mangrove forest that Bangladesh relies so heavily on. In yet another example of banks financing the climate crisis, it was Barclays that funded the Rampal plant, paying $300m to initiate the project.
But the lack of adequate government assistance has led to an incredible, people-led system of voluntary work to protect their communities. As the monsoon season approaches, the people on the west coast of Bangladesh have to undertake embankment repairs. Rafiqul describes how “Thousands of people from different villages gather to repair the weak embankment” and “Many times at night they guard the embankment” to protect villages from flooding. Whilst this is emblematic of the Bangladesh government’s systemic failures to protect its citizens, it speaks to the spirit of community organising in the region.
Rafiqul believes that this spirit is best exemplified by the work by women and young people in their work regenerating the mangrove forest. “At one time of the year, the fruits of various trees float in the tidal water from the Sundarbans. These were used by the people near the Sundarbans as cooking fuel. But with that fruit, I have seen the initiative to build ‘mangrove nurseries’ in many places. This nursery has been developed on the initiative of women. The saplings of this tree are being planted outside the embankment in the area adjacent to the Sundarbans. As a result, the natural walls are getting stronger.”
These communities working on restoration projects have been influenced by the success of the ‘Second Sundarbans’ - a regeneration project to regrow a large part of the mangrove forest that was destroyed during a cyclone in 1970. Rafiqul details the success of the project, “The age of forest plants is over 50 years old. The extent of this forest is increasing every year through some exceptional techniques with the help of local people.”
Mangroves are not just the most effective natural flood barriers in existence. They are also incredibly effective carbon sinks. A 2018 study found that in 2000 global Mangrove soil was storing a staggering 6.4bn tonnes of carbon. The rate at which it can store carbon means that it is 4 times more effective than drier soils at sequestering. Sadly the mangrove deforestation that took place between 2000-2015, mainly in Indonesia, Malaysia and Myanmar, has released up to 122 million tonnes of carbon dioxide - more than 3 times the amount released from car emissions in the UK in a year.
While mangroves are quite hardy and can tolerate conditions that most trees can’t, restoring them is no mean feat. It is not as simple as growing seedlings in a greenhouse and then transplanting them into mudflats along the ocean’s edge. In their natural habitat, mangrove roots are submerged in water for a part of each day, as the tides come in and roll out. And getting this water level right is crucial - it can mean the difference between the survival of the seedlings and imminent death.
Moreover, it’s crucial to plant the right type. Mangroves aren’t a single species - the term covers around 70 species of shrubs and trees that grow in saline water. Each of these species requires a unique set of conditions to thrive; planting the wrong type in the wrong location can kill the plant. After the devastating impacts of Typhoon Haiyan on the Philippines’ coastal communities, the government committed to planting one million mangroves as a buffer against such storms. However, these efforts did not pay heed to the type of mangrove species planted and as a result, many of these trees died.
Most mangroves also take longer than normal trees to grow to maturity - 15 years instead of 10 - meaning that deforestation of mangroves is even more difficult to repair and offset than regular deforestation. This heightens the importance of conservation efforts and shows the drawbacks of blue carbon offsetting schemes that take 15 years to reset damage done.
The geographic spaces mangrove forests occupy are part of the reason why they are being deforested at such an alarming rate. Coastal areas are the best places to set up aquaculture farming complexes, meaning that farmers and fisherman see the mangrove forests as unnecessary obstacles to profits. The sustainable alternatives exist in the form of mangrove aquaculture, where the systems support fisheries, biodiversity, carbon sequestration, coastal protection and resilience to climate change. But as the health of aquaculture livestock is heavily affected by pollution, low oxygen levels and salinity changes in the water, it is common to cut down areas of the mangrove forest and set up structures where conditions can be controlled more easily.
Farming communities are realising the importance of mangroves and there has been a movement to balance sustainable aquaculture with mangrove conservation. In parts of Indonesia, people conserve mangroves at the centre of their shrimp farms and plant oil palm along the borders.
The prized coastal locations that Mangroves inhabit are also incredibly valuable to the tourism industry. Luxury resorts and hotels are far more desirable when they are on the seafront than when they are inland, meaning much higher prices and much higher profits for developers. The dark reality is that this tourism is driven by western consumerism, which is happy to be actively complicit in destroying a less developed country’s natural flood defences in exchange for a luxury holiday package.
Natural causes such as shoreline erosion and extreme weather events represent 37% of mangrove losses globally, a figure that has been growing as climate change has exacerbated the damage caused. Ocean acidification from high carbon levels in the atmosphere and plastic pollution rot the roots of mangroves whilst the extreme weather phenomena Rafiqul describes are having destructive effects on mangrove forests in South America and Australia.
A number of organisations are fighting to conserve mangrove forests and protect them from human activities. Wildcoast is an organisation based in Mexico, the worst global offender of mangrove deforestation, and it has been fighting hard to maintain preservation of forests whilst expanding the boundaries to protect as much of the mangrove population as possible. So far they have protected a massive 28,000 hectares of forest in northwest Mexico in addition to 325 miles of shoreline around mangrove forests.
The Mangrove Action Project is a global project that adopts a holistic approach to mangrove restoration, empowering local stakeholders to mitigate mangrove stressors and teaching them how to use mangrove ecology and biology to facilitate natural regeneration. By spreading knowledge of their holistic approach to community orientated regeneration, they are building a global community with the knowledge and resources to restore large areas of mangrove forest, sequestering carbon protecting coastlines and preserving biodiversity.
As part of the Save Our Mangrove Now! initiative, The IUCN Environmental Law Centre and experts from seven countries developed a study on the legal and institutional frameworks governing mangroves in order to identify the gaps and determine best practices. It found that successful mangrove governance depends on:
• Institutional capacity to ensure legal enforcement on protections
• Proper communication and coordination between the different government agencies in charge
• Clarification on mandates relating to mangroves
• The level of engagement and involvement of other stakeholders such as local communities, the private sector and the general public
• Ensuring accountability and public participation in decision making on investment, development, resource management and conservation
• Decisions based on science and accurate data
Global movements to must use these principles to reform our approach to protecting and regenerating mangrove forests in way that benefit local communities and ecosystem health.
Use the Mangrove Action Project’s Map to track where they need to work to expand knowledge on mangrove restoration methods and education. Then connect MAP’s Marvellous Mangroves initiative with schools in areas with high levels of Mangrove deforestation and bring their practices to the areas they are most needed in.
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